7 Things to Do Now

Rob Weir offers advice on how to get ready this summer before you get ready for a new fall position.

June 12, 2009

Whether you’re lucky enough to be starting a full-time job or you’re an adjunct stitching your life together on a course-by-course basis, you’ve got some work ahead of you this summer and I don’t just mean course planning. Nobody ever tells you this stuff, but the logistics of assuming a post can be more complex than the job itself. Do the following seven things this summer or in the fall they’ll steal your time like a political canvasser with a foot in your front door.

1. Paperwork. To complete it you need watertight documentation, attention to detail, and the patience of a saint. Step one is proof of identity and most places a driver’s license won’t cut it. Don’t even approach the human resources office unless you’ve got a picture ID plus either a valid passport or a notarized certificate of birth.

Next, pay attention. The new employee handbook at the University of Massachusetts runs 204 pages before they give you a half dozen supplemental booklets. It’s not the worst I’ve seen! There are dozens of forms to complete beyond the W-4: a personal data questionnaire, check routing forms, Social Security verification, state tax information, direct deposit authorization, retirement enrollment forms, various insurance documents, an application for the sick leave bank…. Colleges and universities often offer multiple health and dental plans and it can take hours of research to determine which one is best for you.

Be patient. You’ll have to certify that you understand the campus policy on privacy, sexual harassment, drugs, fraudulent activities, and ownership of patents. It goes on … and on … and on. Some forms you can sign and hand over; others must be co-signed by department chairs and/or deans. Neglect any single document and chances are you won’t make payroll until you’ve taken care of it. I don’t think I’ve ever met an academic who has dispatched all paperwork in a single visit. Few even know what they’ve been through; HR experts often speak in languages more arcane than Linear A. (“Oh, you can’t get paid until the dean signs off on your I-9F.”)

2. Spend a little time with your department secretary. Think you’ll just make a few copies? Hah! You’ll need a copier code for that and the secretary will have to program it into the machine. Need staples or tape or a pen? You’ve got a better chance of cracking the Da Vinci Code than getting inside the supply closet on your own. There are all manner of mysteries for which the secretary is the guardian and the better you get on with that person, the smoother things will go.

3. Set up your office now! It takes a long time to make even a minimalist’s office functional. There are computer and printer cables to be connected, telephones to be activated, network passwords to be loaded, books to be shelved, door keys to be located, desk and file cabinets keys to be signed out…. Start now chances are good that the cables will need to be ordered, the phone will be broken, the passwords are outdated, the shelves need to be cleaned, and a locksmith will be have to be called because door, desk, and file cabinet keys have gone AWOL. You do not want to be waiting on any of this in September.

4. Talk to colleagues ASAP. It’s important to get an insider’s sense of how things work on campus, especially what might be called the campus “culture.” Before you plan classes, get feedback on what kind of students you’ll have, how much work you can expect of them, and what the grading norm is. We could debate how standards should be uniformly high everywhere if you’d like, but save that energy for later; in a new environment you simply don’t want to wander too far from the norm.

5. Order books now. Once you know what to expect, order student books and materials. In an ideal world the bookstore will locate used copies to save your students a few bucks, and your library will place items on reserve and locate e-books sites. But don’t be surprised if the biggest payoff from ordering early is to give you time to adjust when whatever you need is temporarily or permanently unavailable.

6. Visit AV and computer tech centers. Once upon a time it was OK for professors to be incompetent with all things technical. You could even request a technician to run a film or video for you. These days you’ll need to request machines weeks in advance just to get a student intern to deliver them to your classroom, and you’re on your own after that. So spend some time learning how things work. How do you connect the DVD player to the classroom speaker system? What do you need to do to get Internet access in the room? How do you access the university server from a remote site? You should learn how to do anything you think you might do in teaching.

7. Visit every classroom for which you’re scheduled. Lists that purport to document how many desks and what equipment a particular classroom contains are works of fiction that rival the fantasy quotient of Lord of the Rings. Go to the sites yourself and test things you’ll need. If you’ll use PowerPoint, for instance, take a laptop and try to run one. Better to find out now rather than day one that there’s a small unmarked button on the podium you have to push to toggle between the DVD and your computer! And I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been to the registrar’s office in late July to explain, “Yes, there are enough seats, but my class is a seminar and the room you assigned is an auditorium.” Visit early and you’ve got a chance to change this; wait until classes start and you’ll still be hoping for a room shift at midterm. And pick up room and equipment cabinet keys while you’re at it.


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